At the end of the path that runs through Vincent Gardens are steps that will take you up to the Danbury Street bridge. Before you cross take a look down Graham Street. The prospectus of 1811 asserted that easier transport of building materials would be afforded if the proposed Paddington to Limehouse canal was dug and from 1820 carriers were unloading stone, along with other heavy and bulky commodities, at wharves and basins all along its length. Nearly a century would pass before the premises shown in photograph 1 were constructed, but the promise of 1811 proved enduring.
Diespeker, a company involved in creating mosaics and the production of terrazzo, a finely ground composite of marble chippings and cement, found water transport a convenient way to bring various types of stone to their canal-side factory. The company was founded in the early 1880s and was soon taking stands at exhibitions such as one held in Bristol in 1883 where a newspaper report said it was presenting a ‘very choice collection of Mosaic work for flooring’. A good reputation was quickly established and orders came in from all over the country with interest shown by a variety of customers, including church and local government authorities. The old factory is no longer used by Diespeker (it is now the home of a firm of architects) but the company continues to thrive at a base in south London.
After crossing the bridge and turning right down the path you will arrive at City Road basin. In the 1820s Thomas Shepherd, a well-known topographical artist, published a series of pictures of the Regents Canal, one of which shows the City Road basin locks in a view which is still recognisable. Two hundred years ago the area was a 'green field' site that would have probably been developed for housing. However, the Regents Canal changed all that and after the opening, heralded by the firing of blank charges from artillery pieces, it went on to become the most important basin on the waterway, soon superseding Paddington. The main office of the company eventually moved here and shareholders (or proprietors or subscribers as they were then called) no doubt waited eagerly for the arrival of a copy of the annual Statement of Account to see how their investment was doing. Note the way in which the proprietors, in the covering letter, were urged to support the canal based coal trade (2). No smokeless fuel in the 1840s, of course.
Today, with industry gone, the basin carries a more leisurely air and is the venue for the annual Angel Canal festival. The City Road end of the basin is now dominated by two tall apartment blocks which stand by City Road. On the opposite side of the road is a new residential development where many significant points of the Regents Canal (including, prominently, the City Road Basin) are listed (3). Close by is a statue called ‘Opening the Lock Gate’ (4). More canal orientated statues are promised before the development is completed.
Should you wish to have a rest by the canal at this point there is, a little beyond the lock, an area to sit and watch the duck and towpath worlds go by. On the adjacent wall you will see a plaque erected to the memory of Crystal Hale, who worked hard to develop the basin as a facility for the use of young people. It remains the base of the Islington Boat Club and I am sure she would have been very pleased with a nearby quartet of mosaics. They were made by local children working with artists and show different aspects of the canal.
Walking along the towpath a few years ago I noticed a group of volunteers from Thames 21 hard at work cleaning graffiti from the adjacent walls as the whole area was pleasantly developed as the Hanover School Towpath Garden. The ‘greening’ of the canal towpath has really come on in the past couple of years and contributions have been made by a number of groups and organisations.
Passing through this area in September 2019 I met Bob Chase on the Barge Fiodra (5), a cinema and art gallery. There are now an increasing number of boats selling various things or offering entertainment along the Regents Canal. Although none stay in one place for long, all help turn the towpath and the adjacent areas into something beyond a linear walk and commuter cycle track.
A short distance beyond the City Road basin is Wharf Road bridge and a pub, the Narrow Boat, that stands almost opposite Wenlock basin. A couple of years ago review of a new, shared ownership housing development overlooking the basin mentioned the fact that a downside was a lack of ‘immediate green space’ and that Victoria Park is the nearest substantial open space, even though it is two and a half miles away. The most direct route is, of course, along the towpath. Other attractions to the east are the Saturday Broadway Market and, on Sunday, both the Columbia Road flower market and the Victoria Park food market. In September 2021, when visiting the Angel Canal festival, I happened to see the Duffy (6), a boat which brings its own green space wherever it moors!
At this point look out for what you might take, at first glance, to be a standard blue plaque (7) above another strip of towpath ‘greening’. The plaque is not standard, but a reminder that individuals, as well as organisations, have had an important role to play in maintaining the fabric of buildings in riparian areas and in keeping the towpath safe.
A short distance beyond Wenlock basin there is a pedestrian bridge over the canal and it is worth walking up to this to look downstream (8). On the southbank, the older white buildings comprise Holborn Studios , which is evidently Europe’s largest photographic studio complex. A campaign mounted to save the buildings from redevelopment had widespread support in which the Friends of the Regents Canal, a voluntary organisation that has supporters in each of the riparian boroughs, played a key role. The Friends of the Regents Canal constantly monitors planning permission applications and drums up support to oppose those it thinks are to the detriment of the immediate environment of the canal.
Returning to the towpath you will see, as the canal curves round towards Rosemary Branch, a building with 'Rosemary Works' on the top peeping over a bridge parapet. This bridge, which is beyond a pipe arching over the canal, carries Bridport Place. I would suggest leaving the towpath at this point by the adjacent steps. At the top of the steps a poster reflecting the temper of the times (9) was on display during the first pandemic lockdown. As predicted those days did pass. We can only hope they will never return.
Kings Cross to Bethnal Green
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When London Became An Island